The Middle East Channel

Tunisia’s feuding youth

The sound of Tunisians chanting, "the people want the fall of the National Constituent Assembly" abound in a suburb of Tunis where the constitution drafting has been underway. A substantial portion of those protesting for the second week, in the wake of the assassination of opposition leader Mohamed Brahmi, are the same young faces that ...


The sound of Tunisians chanting, "the people want the fall of the National Constituent Assembly" abound in a suburb of Tunis where the constitution drafting has been underway. A substantial portion of those protesting for the second week, in the wake of the assassination of opposition leader Mohamed Brahmi, are the same young faces that poured out of high schools and universities at the start of the Tunisian Revolution two and a half years ago. In late December 2010, these university activists pulled together putting pressure on the regime and distracting police attention from protests taking place around the country. However, their warring calls are anything but unified this time around.

In June, I spoke with Tunisian university students representing a range in levels of student activism and an equal number of Islamists and leftists. The general consensus indicates that sentiments of discontent and polarization are not new and have been festering due to frustration with the transitional process. It seems that recent events have only given momentum to a previous trend and this preexisting mechanism of control has outlived dictatorship and is holding youth activists back from embracing a pluralistic Tunisia. 

Much attention has been given to the economic distress that Tunisian youth has suffered, and the lack of rapid improvement is a likely explanation for the excess of insatiable youth demands today. In fact, the latest Arab Barometer survey conducted in Tunisia in 2011 said that 78 percent of Tunisian youth thought the economic situation would improve over the next few years, which is a far cry from the current reality. However, to get at the tension between youth from different political orientations that has been manifesting itself in rival protests over the past week, it is necessary to look at the unequal inclusion and exclusion process of student groups created under former dictator, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. While the leftist student union, the Union Général des Étudiants de Tunisie (UGET) suffered repression, it was still allowed to operate. On the other hand, the union associated with Rached Ghannouchi’s Islamic Tendency Movement, the Union Général Tunisienne des Etudiants (UGTE), was banned from university activity in 1991 when the Ben Ali regime cracked down on the broader Tunisian Islamist opposition wing. Today’s university students not only grew up under dictatorship, they came of age as a number of important political events were shaping the region such as the Palestinian Intifada in the early 2000s and the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003. Additionally they witnessed the first major uprising against Ben Ali in their lifetimes, the Gafsa Mining Basin Revolts in 2008, which led to a period of riots, strikes, sit-ins, and severe repression of regime dissidents. These events broadened the scope of student activism and instead of focusing on direct university concerns like dorm access, scholarships, and cafeteria conditions, students reclaimed their historical role, seeing themselves as an "inseparable part of the people’s movement." Opposition students organized public speeches, secret meetings, protests in support of Palestinians, and so forth.

During this time of tense regional and domestic events, the youth wing of the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party were given privileges in exchange for spying on dissident students and attending pro-government rallies. UGET was given limited rights to organize in universities as long as it did not challenge the regime (although it often did and was punished for it). And UGTE was absent as a union since the time of its ousting until 2009 and 2010 when a small group of Islamist students started organizing in universities under the name of the Movement of Independent Students. Both opposition groups suffered under the regime and they sometimes managed to work together however, due to the varying degrees of persecution, an underlying distrust between the unions developed. A Manouba University student who has been a member of both unions and now supports neither explained, "UGET students consider UGTE students to be the right hand of Ennahda and UGTE students consider UGET students to be traitors because they were active during the Ben Ali regime. They [UGTE] always ask them [UGET] how they managed to keep working while UGTE members were imprisoned and banned from organizing. UGTE considers the other an historical traitor and UGET considers the other a current traitor."

This sense of polarization within unions and political trends in the country as a whole is reflected in the conversations I had with these young activists. An overwhelming majority of those I interviewed say that they have noticed polarization and discussed it as an increasing issue both on campus and beyond. Again, the Arab Barometer survey found that 62 percent of respondents said they cannot trust the majority of people and only 23 percent have trust in political parties. This lack of trust was perpetuated throughout the legacy of dictatorship in Tunisia. Former President Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali, while both quite secular, sought to stir up fear amongst the general population about Communist and Islamist opposition tying Hamma Hammami to atheism and the Islamic Tendency Movement to terrorism. This narrative has been perpetuated and has left both sides unable to accept the other and those in the middle distrustful of both.

Discontent and restlessness with the current political situation has lent itself to tension and disagreement with both rival political ideologies and the government. A majority of the youth I spoke with view the government’s performance as negative, which concurs with a recent pew research poll in which Tunisians were asked about their satisfaction with the direction of their country. In my study, those identifying as liberals or communists cited grievances such as the government’s weak stance on Salafist extremism and infringement on liberal rights and values while Islamists’ frustrations stem from a lack of progress in transitional justice and from what they consider to be too much political compromise with the opposition. Predictably, Islamists are more forgiving of the current leadership and a majority of those who sympathize with Ennahda view the government’s performance as moderate to positive while a large number of leftists find its performance inadequate. These numbers do not seem surprising and lend some explanation as to why such a large number of leftists have taken to the streets in recent days. However, a more interesting finding from the interviews is the fundamental divide on ideological grounds in Tunisia. A little under half of the Islamists I interviewed, and a majority of those who support Ennahda, indicated that they want to express their views concerning the government’s performance at the ballot box or by contacting elected officials. Furthermore, many mentioned that protests and strikes were, at this point, a roadblock to bringing jobs to the country and making progress in completing the constitution. They feel the people should leave the legitimately elected officials to complete their tenure until the people have their chance to vote them out. A 28-year-old member UGTE at Manar University told me that showing disapproval of the government in a democratic system should be done through the process of elections. "If we want to punish this government, then we can elect the opposition because that is how the democratic process works … The democratic mentality is necessary in order to achieve stability and social balance."

On the other hand, an equal majority of leftists see protesting, striking, and rioting as not only the most suitable forms of expression but also, many leftists see these tactics as their only option. This sentiment is reflected in the desperation of a 20-year-old member of UGET from Manouba University, identifying herself as a proud Communist: "Nothing is working with this government. We protested and we had debates in the street. They should be kicked out again. Degage!" And this message has amplified on the part of the opposition as the Nahdhawis try to salvage the government and keep it in place until elections can be held in December. One young Ennahda supporter I spoke with expressed a cautious optimism. "The assassination came at a very critical stage in our country, as Ben Jaafar said yesterday, ‘we are meters away from the finish line.’ … The [National Constituent] Assembly will finish its work in October and the election will be in December … I don’t think the government will fall, Tunisia is not Egypt. We are six months away from the [next] election and the Tunisian people are rational." 

The debate about whether to overthrow the government indicates that, two and a half years into their democratic transition, Tunisians are still wrestling with how they will define democracy. Does practicing democracy merely mean to elect government officials or should it also encompass liberal ideals? This is the quintessential difference between their arguments. Ennahda members justify maintaining the current government and Constituent Assembly on legitimacy as elected officials. The opposition argues that Ennahda is not "democratic" in the sense that it does not provide them with the same liberal freedoms that they associate with western democracy.

The current political and economic situation has only exacerbated existing tensions and is drawing those who were more pluralistic to take harsher stances against their rivals, bringing Islamists and leftists to the streets as adversaries instead of a unified Tunisian people. Another Ennahda supporter who has been active in the pro-government protests told me, "I am protesting with the legally elected [government] in order to … keep us from experiencing what happened in Egypt. I do not have faith in the opposition because the opposition just opposes for the sake of doing so but they do not have any plan for governing … the opposition exploited the assassination in order to oust the regime." Whereas, a member of UGET and a leader in the Workers Party youth wing expressed concern that Tunisia has yet to achieve a social revolution. He followed this up by saying, "the best way to fight against the government is to try to replace it with a national government that supports and respects the people and the goals of the revolution."

Tunisia has not been quick to adopt Tamarod (the movement that led to the toppling of Mohamed Morsi in Egypt) which seeks a total overthrow of the country’s constitution but leftists are linking up with rival politicians and groups in a bid to form a National Salvation Front which would seek to finish drafting the pre-existing constitution rather than doing away with it entirely. Nonetheless, 65 out of the 217 National Constituent Assembly members have resigned and many opposition members that I have spoken with express that the only solution is a new revolution. They may be convinced to leave the streets if the National Salvation Front can cut a deal with the Troika and reach a compromise however, in order for that to happen, political opportunism will have to take the sidelines. This will not fully satisfy either faction but short of oppressing protesters and keeping the National Constituent Assembly as is, it may be the only one.

The steps that Ennahda and their rivals take during this time of turbulence run the risk of perpetuating the authoritarian legacy of divided regime opposition. Resentment, fear, and polarization does have a firm place in Tunisian society and has been nourished by regime-fostered divides however, if credible leaders on both sides can rise above it and set examples for their youth wings about how to interact with each other while also setting a plausible plan for job creation, Tunisia may be on the path to overcoming this hurdle.

Alissa Strunk is a doctoral student in the department of political science at Indiana University Bloomington. Her research was supported in part by a Travel-Research-Engagement grant from the Project on Middle East Political Science. She tweets at @AlissaStrunk.

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